Disability Law

9th Circuit says Calif. must ensure help for disabled parolees redirected to county jails

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last Friday affirmed a trial court’s decision that California cannot wash its hands of responsibility when, as part of the state’s effort to ease prison overcrowding, disabled parolees returned to custody are placed in county facilities, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Disabled parolees re-incarcerated for violating parole or awaiting revocation hearings are often forced “into the vulnerable position of being dependent on other inmates to enable them to obtain basic services, such as meals, mail, shower and toilets,” Justice Stephen Reinhardt wrote (PDF) for a unanimous three-judge panel.

The violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act included “widespread denial of mobility-assistance devices to persons unable to physically function without them,” the denial of hearing aids for deaf prisoners and tapping canes for the blind.

The litigation began in 1994, and after a lengthy series of rulings, orders, legislative amendments and other measures, a federal district judge in August 2012 ordered California state officials to implement a County Jail Plan for disabled prisoners and parolees. The state appealed, arguing that amendments to the California Penal Code altering the balance of control between state and counties in such matters absolved it of responsibility.

The appeals court rebuffed that argument in reaffirming the lower court, noting that “defendants have resisted complying with their federal obligations at every turn.”

Then, the 9th Circuit put the onus squarely on the state: “The vast majority of these undisputed violations could have been prevented if defendants had shared their knowledge with the county jails as to the accommodations needed” by individual disabled prisoners. As for any prisoners who might fall between the cracks even if that were done, the court said a grievance procedure would cure the problems.

The state now faces the lower court’s order to, among other things, disseminate a plan to its own personnel and county officials; track disabled parolees; within 24 hours of a disabled parolee being jailed, apprise jailing officers of the disability via email; and give those prisoners stamped envelopes and grievance forms.

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